A bomb technician with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) said the ongoing partial shutdown of the federal government prevented him from meeting with oil and gas industry officials to discuss pipeline security, warning the industry is being exposed to security risks.
Meanwhile, a federal district court judge in South Carolina ruled that the federal government cannot process seismic testing permits for offshore oil drilling while the shutdown, which entered its thirty-fourth day Thursday, continues. Two bills aimed at ending the shutdown failed in the Senate Thursday.
According to "Voices from the Field," a 72-page report released by the FBI Agents Association (FBIAA), the ongoing shutdown presents daily challenges for FBI agents as well as national security risks.
"For agents and the FBIAA, the fight for funding is not political," the organization said. "It is a matter of completing our mission and protecting the Constitution and the people of our nation. Agents will continue working to thwart all plots and investigate all incidents, whether child trafficking and exploitation, cyber intrusion, or terrorist attack."
The report was interlaced with comments from agents with various roles within the FBI, including the bomb technician, who serves from the bureau's Western Region.
"This week I was scheduled to make a three-hour drive...to meet with a group of oil and gas pipeline representatives," the bomb technician said. "It is not secret that pipeline operators and the petroleum industry at large are past and likely future targets for criminal actors. Some of those actors may use methods that require a bomb technician.
"My attendance at this event was cancelled, in part, due to the cost of fueling my vehicle."
Trade groups representing the oil and gas industry declined to comment specifically on the FBI agent's statements, but urged lawmakers and the White House to reach an agreement to end the shutdown, which began at midnight on Dec. 21 after the White House and Congress could not agree on funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
"The primary responsibility for pipeline safety and security lies on the operator," a spokesman for the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA) told NGI. "With that said, federal agencies have plans in place for funding lapses and those employees working in functions deemed essential to life and safety continue to work."
The INGAA spokesman said routine inspections and accident investigations, both of which are conducted by the Transportation Department's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), "are unaffected by the shutdown, with more than 200 PHMSA employees continuing to work in these functions." He added that PHMSA also continues to partner with state regulators to ensure pipeline safety.
"While we want all agencies responsible for the oversight of pipeline safety and security, including PHMSA, the Transportation Security Administration, FBI and others, to be fully staffed as soon as possible, we are entirely confident that critical safety and security functions are being met during this partial government shutdown."
Association of Oil Pipe Lines Vice President John Stoody said the trade group "[appreciates] the service and sacrifice of our nation's law enforcement and pipeline safety personnel during the shutdown and hope for an agreement and return to normal in the not too distant future." American Petroleum Institute spokesman Reid Porter concurred, adding that "government shutdowns are good for no one, and we hope that Congress and the administration reach an agreement to reopen the government soon."
More than 380,000 federal employees nationwide have been furloughed across nine cabinet-level departments, including the Department of Interior. Funding for the Environmental Protection Agency has also been affected. An additional 420,000 federal employees have been deemed essential and are working without pay.
Judge Orders Seismic Halt
In U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, Judge Richard Gergel barred the Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) from issuing permits to five companies for conducting seismic airgun surveys for oil and gas deposits in the Mid- and South Atlantic.
According to court records, a coalition of environmental groups sued federal officials over the seismic testing on Dec. 11. A separate lawsuit filed by 16 coastal cities over the testing was consolidated with the original complaint on Dec. 28, and South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson moved to intervene in the case on Jan. 7. The government then asked for a stay on South Carolina being allowed to join, citing the lapse in appropriations.
But Gergel said reports that previously furloughed workers at BOEM were ordered to return to work to process the seismic survey applications, as well as to work on the agency's five-year Outer Continental Shelf oil and gas leasing plan, put the court in a "potentially untenable situation."
"While the federal defendants are certainly in need of a stay because they are subject to the lack of appropriations and are prohibited from working, the risk of prejudice to other litigants is substantial," Gergel wrote. The judge later took issue with the government opining that the shutdown would be over by March 1.
"Unless Department of Justice counsel are aware of a resolution date to the longest government shutdown in American history that they have not shared with the court, predicting the date of the restoration of funding falls within the category of rank speculation," Gergel wrote.
The lead plaintiff in the case, the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League (SCCCL), praised the ruling.
"The government was trying to have its cake and eat it too," said SCCCL Executive Director Laura Cantral. "This is an issue of critical importance to the coast, and one that must be handled openly, transparently and fairly. This ruling will allow that to happen, and that is good for all concerned."
The case is South Carolina Coastal Conservation League et al. v. Ross et al., No. 2:18-cv-03326-RMG.